Three pastors from the Richmond area who support Donald Trump filed a lawsuit in federal court Wednesday against the State Board of Elections to eliminate the requirement that voters in Virginia’s March 1 primary sign a “statement of affiliation” before casting a ballot.

Attorney Chuck Smith did not file the suit at the behest of the Trump campaign. But it follows the threat of legal action Dec. 30 by the mogul’s Virginia campaign chairman, Corey Stewart, and the billionaire businessman’s angry tweets on the pledge.

The plaintiffs are Stephen A. Parson, formerly of the Richmond Christian Center; Leon Benjamin; and Bruce L. Waller Sr. Parson gave an opening prayer during Trump’s Oct. 14 rally in Henrico County.

Trump said in a statement that while his campaign is not involved in the suit, he supports its goal.

“The Republican Party is working to disallow independent, unaffiliated and new voters. Hopefully the RNC (Republican National Committee) will straighten this mess out with the Republican Party of Virginia,” Trump said.

“If they don’t stop excluding people the party is doomed. Hillary and the Democrats love this. The Republican Party in Virginia keeps losing. They really need to be smart and win for a change.

“While my campaign is not involved, I fully support Dr. Steve Parson and his fellow plaintiffs. He is representing millions of disenfranchised people in America who have felt left out of the political process for years, and that has to stop. It is going to take us all working together to make America great again!”

The suit charges that the required statement — in which voters would fill out a form that says “My signature below indicates that I am a Republican” — violates the Voting Rights Act, the 1st and 14th Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and state law.

The suit asks the court to issue preliminary and permanent injunctions barring enforcement of the requirement.

Smith filed the suit in Newport News but will seek to have the case heard in Richmond.

On Dec. 16 the State Board of Elections — at the request of the Virginia GOP’s State Central Committee — certified that voters must fill out the form in order to cast ballots in the March 1 GOP primary. Had the party chosen to run and fund its primary, rather than have the state administer the election, the pledge would have been legal, according to the suit.

“While state law certainly permits the party to choose whether it will have a closed convention or a state-sponsored open primary, the party does not get to decide who is and who is not an acceptable voter among those otherwise rightfully entitled to vote.”

The suit argues that the pledge requirement is “unlawful on its face and is especially repugnant when set against Virginia’s sordid history of discrimination.”

It alleges that the pledge violates the Voting Rights Act because it “conditions the right to vote on saying ‘I am a Republican,’ and that will disparately burden blacks and Hispanics.”

It claims that incorporating the pledge into primary voting will cause “long lines and interminable waits” for voters, and that poor people, including minorities, “cannot afford to wait hours to vote,” and that blacks could face “backlash” in their communities for being identified as Republican.

The suit claims the pledge violates the 1st Amendment on free-speech grounds and the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection under the law by disenfranchising voters who are unwilling to publicly declare they are Republicans.

Finally, it charges that the State Board of Elections violated state law by establishing the new requirements 76 days before the March 1 primary, rather than the required 90 days.

Martin Mash, a spokesman for the State Board of Elections, said: “We don’t comment on pending litigation.”

David D’Onofrio, a spokesman for the Republican Party of Virginia, noted the party was not named as a defendant and said it had not yet reviewed the suit.

On Dec. 27, Trump released a twitter barrage against the Virginia GOP’s requirement.



“It begins, Republican Party of Virginia, controlled by the RNC, is working hard to disallow independent, unaffiliated and new voters. BAD!” Trump tweeted. In subsequent tweets he called the requirement “a suicidal mistake,” and “stupid.”

Party officials have defended their push for the “statement of affiliation” as a means of preventing Democrats from participating in the Republican primary and said it would help them build a statewide voter list that could help the party in the future.

On Dec. 29, John Findlay, executive director of the state GOP, emailed a letter to the party’s 128 unit chairmen, defending the requirement.

“For reasons unknown to our party at this time, Donald Trump has decided that this is an attack against his campaign,” Findlay wrote. “Let me be very clear, the statement of affiliation is not designed to favor or hurt any candidate whatsoever.”

Virginians do not register by party and can vote in either party’s primary contests, though not in both.

But Trump’s camp, led by Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, countered that the requirement was pushed by the “upper echelons” of the national Republican Party, as an attempt to “confuse and scare off” new voters Trump is attracting and to improve the odds for establishment candidates who are lagging behind Trump in the polls.

The state GOP’s governing body voted to require loyalty pledges prior to primaries in 2008 and 2012, but later scrapped the idea before voting.

According to a release sent out about the suit, the litigants sent a “cease and desist” order on Tuesday to try and persuade GOP officials to drop the pledge requirement. When there was no response, Smith filed the suit.

One “huge practical question” is whether the case can be resolved before the March 1 primary, said Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond.

He believes it can be resolved in time, noting that federal judges quickly dispensed with Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s legal challenge after he failed to qualify for the Virginia GOP’s 2012 presidential primary.

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jnolan@timesdispatch.com

(804) 649-6061

Twitter: @RTDNolan

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